Chess players match wits on five-day train journey

Photo: CTK

For the fifth year in a row, the Prague Czech Chess Association, in cooperation with Czech Railways, is organising a rather unusual international chess tournament. It takes place on board a train that goes from Prague to Vienna and back. Ruth Fraňková went to check-out the event and has more in this edition of In Focus:

Photo: CTK
On Friday morning, chess players from all over the world, started gathering at Prague’s Main Train Station to enrol for the fifth Chess Train Tournament. The special Chess Train, which is to host the tournament over the next five days, is already standing at platform one, waiting for the players to get on board.

A record number of participants have registered this year, including grandmasters Julio Sadorra from the Philippines, Lars Karlsson of Sweden and Ján Plachetka of Slovakia. Among the players to board the train this year, albeit only as a guest, is last year's winner of the tournament, Australian chess champion Ian Rogers, who says the Chess Train Tournament is one of a kind:

“A lot of people take boat cruises around to various islands and this is like travelling around Central Europe, enjoying yourself, the train is very pleasant. It’s even more fun when you don’t play, you can sit on the restaurant car drinking coffees, so it’s a great experience. And many people who have been on it come back year after year. My first year was last year and I have come back as well.”

Is playing chess on a train any different from other tournaments?

“It is very different and it was one of the reasons why I came out of retirement to try and play because I thought it would not very stressful. But ultimately you are still trying to win, so it was tricky.

“But for instance in this tournament, although it is fairly fast time, they ask you to write down all your moves, just in case the train brakes and all the pieces go flying, than everyone knows where the pieces still are.

Photo: CTK
“I won the tournament last year because at a critical moment the train went around the corner and the sun came through into one of the players’ eyes and he was waving to get the curtains closed and while he was waving he lost the time and that’s how I won the tournament last year. So these sort of problems don’t happen in normal events.”

Which destinations are you looking forward to this year?

“I am meeting friend in Bratislava where I haven’t been to for quite a while so that will be very pleasant, but Wroclav is the main that I haven’t been before. Last year the best place on the train was Trenčín, I haven’t even heard of the place and it was a real revelation.

“The other thing that I am hoping is that like last year, at some point the train will stop in a little village or a town, and they tell us we have on hour to explore and everyone gets off and has a look around. Who know where this place will be but it was very pleasant last year when we did this.”

While Ian Rogers came from Australia just to enjoy the journey across central Europe, Slovak chess champion Ján Plachetka, who is attending already for the third time, is one of the front-runners of year's competition:

“When I was a little boy I was a big fan of trains. We had a railway not far from my house and I was really fascinated by trains and vapour locomotives. It was my dream to be connected with trains. So this is like fulfilling my childhood dreams. And of course it is also connected with chess.”

So it combines both of your passions, I guess.

“Yes, that right.”

Is it more difficult to concentrate on the game when you are on the train?

“It is true that the conditions are slightly different but in principle they are the same for everybody and it is not such a big handicapped to play on the train. My only handicap is my age. Nowadays, chess is a game for young people, but luckily, seniors can play too.”

Lars Karlsson,  Ján Plachetka,  photo: CTK
On the occasion of the departure of the fifth Chess Train, the JLV company, which provides catering on Czech railways trains, introduced a special sticker with a sign ‘Tady se hrají šachy’ or ‘Here we play chess’. From now on, it will mark trains were chess will be available for passengers. I spoke to the company’s managing director Bohumír Bárta:

“We used to offer chess on our long-distance trains in the past, especially on the train from Prague to Moscow. At a time when there were no play stations, computers or smartphones, chess was one of the few entertainments on the train. After 1989, the tradition was interrupted, so we decided to run a pilot project on the train from Prague to Krakow to see if people are interested and to see how they react.”

At ten o'clock sharp, all chess players and their entourage are on board the Chess Train, heading to Dresden, the first destination along their journey. I get on board as well, to meet Pavel Matocha, the man behind the whole project, and the head of the Prague Chess Association, to find out more about the history of the tournament:

“In the beginning there was a nice idea or a dream that I shared with my friends. We wanted to organise this event and we were happy that the managing director of Czech Railways was immediately interested. It was really a unique idea, since there was no other chess train in history, not only in the Czech Republic but also in the world. That’s why the chess train has become so popular and more and more players attend every year. This year we have 120 chess players on board.”

I believe you had to add an extra car to accommodate all the people who were interested.

“Yes, exactly, because formerly we only had a capacity for 150 people, but when we saw how many people were interested this year, we were looking into ways to accommodate them and in the end we added an extra car.”

So can you tell me more about the Chess train? How is it organised?

“The Chess Train consists of eleven cars. Six cars serve as playing halls, then there are two dining cars, one luggage car and one for arbiters and staff. The last car is for visitors and people who accompany the players.”

And these cars are named after world chess players…

Photo: CTK
“The cars are named according to world chess champions. We started with the first in history, who was Wilhelm Steinitz, who was born in Prague, so I think it is great that the Chess Train starts in Prague. After him there is Lasker, Capablanca, Aljochin and others. This year, we have altogether eleven cars and we finish with Bobby Fisher.”

How many world chess champions actually are there?

“We had sixteen world chess champions in history, which means we can still add some more trains in the future.”

Who can take part in the Chess Train Tournament?

“Anyone, actually, because it is an open tournament, which means that there are no restrictions. So there are amateurs as well as chess masters.”

This is a rapid chess tournament. Can you explain the basic rules of the game? How is it different from an ordinary chess game?

“The main difference is in time limit. Normal game takes from three to six hours but the rapid chess games take less than one hour.”

And finally can you tell me a little bit more about the route? Where does the train stop this year?

“This year we are travelling from Prague to Dresden, from Dresden to Wroclav, from Wroclav to Bratislava, From Bratislava to Vienna and finally back to Prague.”

The Chess Train Tournament closes on Tuesday afternoon. The Chess Train will return to Prague’s Main Train Station, where this years’ winners will be announced.